Filming a motley crew of campaigners gathered outside Parliament on June 28th for the second tabling of the cross-party NHS Reinstatement Bill by Labour MP Margaret Greenwood – Green MP Caroline Lucas handled its first presentation in March 2015 – I suddenly found newly appointed Shadow Health Secretary Diane Abbott at my shoulder oven fresh from the House.
“Comrades,” she addressed the thronglet a bit startled at her unexpected benediction. “This Bill is a very important Bill. I want to assure you of my personal support for the principles of the Bill.” The gratification amongst the campaigners was palpable. Now, after more than two years of graft and disappointment (see We’ll Meet Again), the Bill that is a clear statement of intent to fully renationalise the NHS was being taken on board by the Party’s health bigwig. At least in principle.
This was a notable turnaround given that, at a campaigners’ meeting only two months earlier with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and then Shadow Health Secretary and New Labour Oldie Heidi Alexander, the NHS hadn’t even got a place amongst the leadership’s policy priorities. Alexander had given the usual reasons for the Oldies’ refusal to support the Bill; “We can’t afford another top-down reorganisation” and “But how do we fund it?”. And a beleagured Corbyn and McDonnell had held back from openly supporting it despite having been among the handful of Labour MPs to back it a year earlier.
But the ensuing bolting of Oldie Shadow Cabinet ministers in June, led by Alexander, had seen the NHS propelled centre stage as Owen Smith vied with Corbyn to attract the wave of new members pushing the Party leftwards in a charisma-free leadership election. With that came the Bill’s rapid elevation after Abbott replaced Alexander.
This was followed by McDonnell and Corbyn finally coming out of the NHS renationalisation closet in August. Further progress was confirmed by the Bill’s authors Professor Allyson Pollock and Peter Roderick at the Bill Group meeting on September 19th, when they revealed that they’d had a line-by-line discussion of it with the Labour leadership a few days earlier. There was an air of cautious optimism.
But the campaigners remain circumspect. They know that it could be hard to maintain the Bill’s integrity once it’s been subjected to mangling by the Oldies in Labour’s turf wars. Wracked by fear of polls showing ‘economic competence’ as the Damocles Sword hanging over the Party “But how do we fund it?” will remain the Oldies’ default cry.
The Oldies’ truth that dares not speak its name is that, in their defaulting on full NHS renationalisation, they implicitly accept part-privatisation of the NHS – that is, the substantial privatisation already embedded in it. Full ‘de-marketisation’ of the NHS which the Reinstatement Bill would enact? They pass on that.
In so doing they leave the NHS saddled with all the fragmented healthcare delivery, reduced accessibility and heavy extra costs that private sector provisioning brings. And they leave open the possibility of enforced surrender of more NHS assets and services to private sector predators under international trade and ‘unfair’ competition agreements.
For campaigners it’s a TINA (There Is No Alternative) thing. The only way to secure the provision of all-round healthcare for all regardless of wealth, and at the least cost, is our tax-based, publicly funded and publicly provided NHS.
At the McDonnell/Alexander meeting on April 13th retired paediatrician Dr Tony O’Sullivan, co-chair of Keep Our National Health Public (KONP), called for Alexander and her fellow Oldies to “shoot at an open goal“. Full NHS renationalisation seems an obvious vote winner for Labour, the one issue with wide appeal across the political spectrum including Tories in marginal seats.
The Oldies’ shying away from this because of their fears of being seen as economically irresponsible over the costs of a fully nationalised NHS – and their trimming on anything that decisively takes on Big Money and Big Business – is a depressing reminder of how extensively the free marketeers have captured our democratic process, making submissives of the many decent and well-intentioned working at its hub.
Labour lost an Election they should have won through their continuing obeisance to the financial and corporate sectors. Corbynism, with policies that are generally little more than those accepted as part of the post-War consensus prior to Thatcherism, offers clear red(dish) water between the Labour and Tory parties. And the NHS is the most publicly drinkable, even for a surprising number of Tories.
At the Party Conference Abbott formally announced Labour’s commitment to the Bill. But thus far it’s simply its headlines that have been tabled in Parliament that she has referenced. Only when its full wording has been presented, and in a way that ensures that the Blairites’ privatisation legislation, as well as the Tories’, has been repudiated to ensure full NHS renationalisation, will campaigners be satisfied. Things might be looking up but their jury remains out.
The NHS is the central policy issue that will determine whether lapsed Labourites like Groundswell‘s Joanna (Adams) return to the Labour fold. And whether Labour stands any chance of winning the next General Election. The 999ers and fellow grassrooters have the ear of the Labour leadership. But will the Oldies now listen and change?
The stage is set for the NHS being a Labour Party game-changer, sorting out how many of the Oldie, City-shagged sheep might be persuaded to move over to join the free market-kicking Newbie goats.
It’s the locus of the battle for Labour’s soul and future – indeed for “our nation’s soul” as Joanna put it in her wonderfully plainspeaking speech in Trafalgar Square at the culmination of the 999ers People’s March For The NHS in September 2014. With the film’s subjects at the heart of the action so is Groundswell.
William Hill’s have some interesting odds on the next Prime Minister. Boris Johnson is 7/1, Philip Hammond 16/1, David Miliband 25/1, John McDonnell and Michael Gove 33/1, Chuka Umunna and Clive Lewis 40/1, Yvette Cooper and Sadiq Khan 50/1, Andy Burnham 100/1.
The Labour runners look pretty tempting for punters who like long odds. But Corbyn won’t be for them. He’s only 5/1. The bookies don’t seem to share quite such an apocalyptic vison of the head goat as the Oldies.
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